Pattaya Rising … and Rising
In late summer 1999, I came to Pattaya for the first time. It was awful. First of all, it took five hours to get here from Bangkok. The motorway was just a bunch of guys driving big yellow machines and flashing barricades. If you’ve never suffered the trip in full-on traffic all the way down via Sukhumvit Road, I highly recommend taking it just one time to gain some perspective.
For several years I lived in Bangkok and when someone would ask, “how long does it take to get to Pattaya” my response was always “five hours”. It didn’t always take that long, but it always could. When I wanted to see the beach, I’d fly to Phuket. The elapsed time between leaving my condo in Bangkok and actually putting my toes in the sand was about the same.
Some friends and I were told Pattaya used to be a sleepy little fishing village that turned into Thailand’s much celebrated brothel-by-the-sea. Part sleaze-mecca, part beach resort … for a bunch of over-worked, over-paid and over-sexed mongrels like us, it seemed like the perfect destination. We stayed at Siam Bayshore way on the south end of Pattaya Beach because someone had recommended it. It wasn’t bad, but it was three-star at best. And, there wasn’t much better in our price range that we saw.
Other than the Marriott and Dusit on Beach Road, all accommodations were three stars or less. Royal Garden Plaza, Mike’s and Big C Festival on north Second Road were the only shopping venues. The water on Pattaya Beach was repulsive. I remember not seeing one person in the water. The main attraction in Pattaya seemed to be soapy body massage and beer bars.
Walking Street was, however, at its surreal best. But, compared to now, it was quite folksy. No side-shows with juvenile contortion artists … no people painted silver … no Russian go-go dancers … no families with children in strollers; just punters and bar girls playing their respective parts. It still resembled a Vietnam War era R&R retreat; not the tourist attraction it has turned into now. In some ways, it was a “kinder/gentler” Walking Street.
Tourists were a different flavour back then. Visitors from the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France and Scandinavian countries were the bulk of what we experienced. Since it was late July, we were informed that this was “low season”, and everyone seemed to be ramping up for “high season”. The adherence to this ancient cycle of annual tourist migration was almost militant.
I have no idea what condominiums in Pattaya cost at that time because I never considered living there. There were quite a few projects being built, but more were stalled skeletons; their bones bleaching under the relentless sun in the wake of the currency collapse of 1997.
I do not wallow in the misery of hindsight about Pattaya. No one could have predicted the property development explosion that has come to pass. If someone were to walk up to you in a bar back then and start talking about mega-high rise condo resorts and high speed trains from the airport, you’d have laughed in their face. Pattaya was a low-rent, wannabe city oozing with cheap booze, girls and lodging. As my friend from New Jersey called it, “one big festering neon distraction”.
Fast forward to the here and now and get whiplashed. Now it takes less than 90 minutes to get to Pattaya from the fat part of Bangkok even if you drive like a granny. The airport is only just over an hour away. What’s more, half of Pattaya doesn’t even need to go through Pattaya to get to the airport. Infrastructure is a wonderful thing.
More exciting and closer
During the floods of 2011 Bangkokians rediscovered Pattaya and have been using that gorgeous stretch of asphalt called the Bangkok-Chonburi Motorway as often as possible. Why go to boring old Hua Hin when Pattaya is much more exciting and closer? For Bangkok, Pattaya has become that weekend getaway … a place city-dwellers can let down their hair.
In the US we call this a “bedroom” community. If you don’t believe me take a look at the seafood restaurants in south Jomtien Beach Friday through Sunday, or check out the coffee shops in Naklua and North Pattaya Saturday and Sunday morning. You’ll see young professional weekenders and day-trippers from Bangkok. Pattaya is suddenly “hip”.
The Bangkok re-connection cannot be denied. The floods forced thousands of Bangkokians to realise three things about Pattaya. It’s a lot nicer than it used to be … it’s a lot closer than it used to be … and it’s a lot drier than Bangkok. Long is the list of large companies that took big losses during the flooding and have moved operations closer to Pattaya. In many ways Bangkok’s sinking has aided Pattaya’s rising.
A new tourism model has emerged. New five star hotels and resorts linked to world class shopping centres have sprung up. And, the tourists that fill them are from completely different parts of the world than in 1999. Russians, Indians, Arabs and Chinese keep coming in such waves that it seems there is no longer such a thing as “high season” and “low season” … there is only “high season” and “really high season”.
And, while Pattaya’s infamous nightlife is still a centrepiece for many a tourist’s agenda, no longer is Pattaya considered a one-trick resort town. Now people actually come here for sun, fun, seafood, golf, diving, wind surfing, kite surfing; the list gets longer every day. More couples … more families … more things to do.
Believe it or not, the water is even cleaner. Don’t get me wrong … I’m an unrepentant beach snob and you won’t catch me in the water along Pattaya’s beaches. But, I’ve witnessed real improvement in water quality and actually see people in the water, on the water and throngs of visitors learning to go under the water.
But, if you want to see the most dramatic changes in Pattaya, look up. Without a doubt, Pattaya has one of the most dynamic skylines in the world. When I first came to Pattaya, I thought anything over 15 floors was a skyscraper. There were a few big buildings in town, but most were square, boring boxes with functionality taking precedence over design. “Amenities” meant a swimming pool and half-ass fitness room. A few years ago developers looked to the skies and started planning a series of impressive high rise luxury condos and resorts.
Now, no part of the Pattaya corridor is immune from the high-rise phenomenon. Wong-Amat and Naklua in the north boast several new projects. Pratumnak Hill is positively clustered with new buildings. Jomtien Beach created a new road that is now filling up with high rise projects. And now even Na-jomtien and Bang Saray are getting in on the act.
They will come
Some skeptics charge that developers are using a “build it and they will come” business model that is doomed to fail. But, as take up rates increase and new condos get gobbled up by hungry investors, it seems the saturation point is not in sight yet. I think that’s because there are some unique advantages to owning and living in a well-run high-rise building.
I owned and lived in such a building in Bangkok. The security of a properly managed high-rise is superior to a housing estate or other such accommodation.
The amenities are another big plus. Show me a swimming pool I don’t have to keep clean and I’m a happy man. Other conveniences like laundry and maid service certainly make life easier. Even though I prefer to live on lower to mid-range floors (13th is my favourite), I find high-rise living very comfortable. It’s not about being up high … it’s about living in a secured and self-contained community.
Safety in numbers
As an investor, I like that the maintenance fees are usually more reasonable because of the sheer number of owners. And, newer condos are generally using professional management to run things above board and smoothly.
Besides a certain feeling of “safety in numbers”, I find that most high-rises have a built-in mechanism for selling and/or renting available units. Some buildings have a formally managed arrangement and others outsource this task to some enterprising individuals, or professionals.
But for most condo owners I know it is a combination of all these factors expressed in one commonly uttered phrase: “I just want to lock the door, go away and not worry.” Most people love the idea of a second home, but don’t want any hassle. Investors who buy-to-let want “passive” income, not problems. The convenience of living and investing in a well-run high rise is its unique selling proposition.
Above is a list of several new projects. In no way does this list represent all of the high rise projects launched in Pattaya. There are simply too many to mention.
I’m sure I’ve left some out, but these were all I could remember. Perhaps this could be a new bar game played by Pattaya property junkies … “how many projects can you name in 30 seconds?”
Pratumnak Hill, with its convenient position, stands out as high-rise heaven. Developers are keen to take advantage of the highest point around as well as its strategic location between Pattaya proper and Jomtien Beach. Well established resorts like The Sheraton, Royal Cliff and Cabbages and Condoms help anchor this expanding little community. The development of the Bali Hai Pier area with rumours of a new marina and the majestic 50-storey Waterfront project imminent, have Pratumnak Hill looking like “uptown” Pattaya.
My pick of the litter on Pratumnak Hill is The Cliff by the Nova Group. The building went up pretty much on schedule and is slated for occupation very soon. It is really the first of this current wave of high-rise condos to finish. The Cliff hogs up a really nice position in the middle of Pratumnak Hill and the views are spectacular.
Students field survey
A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed some Thai students from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. They were down on a field survey for their study course in real estate development. They had a shortlist of projects that were their favourites and The Cliff was one of them.
Not to be outdone, however, is the Naklua/Wong-Amat Beach area. The northern end of Pattaya actually had some of the top vintage high-rise buildings, many of which are still quite well maintained. And now, several seriously up-scale projects are on the cards for this area.
The Chulalongkorn students also favoured The Palm in Wong-Amat Beach. Besides the chic design of the building, they just prefer that beach. “The water is much more clean,” one student told me. “When I get the money, I’ll invest here”.
Stratospheric land prices
To be sure, Wong-Amat Beach has a very different vibe … quiet and relaxed – even in high season. There isn’t much room left on and near Wong-Amat, and the land prices there are pretty stratospheric. It only stands to reason that future projects in this area will tend to be more high-rises.
Jomtien Beach is experiencing a spurt of high-rise growth on two fronts. The new Jomtien Beach Second Road has paved the way for a myriad of new projects including the Dusit Grand Tower View and A.D The Grand. The accessibility of this location is proving to be attractive to many buyers.
The completion of Second Road and its ultimate continuation south guarantees we’ll no doubt see more high-rise projects there.
The 49-storey Cetus building will become a new landmark on Jomtien Beach Road as will the twin towers of Reflection. Thai visitors from Bangkok have always preferred the southern end of Jomtien Beach, so it is no wonder that when Thai developers arrived on the scene, they chose this area. There isn’t much beach, but there is plenty of great food.
And now the farther south beaches are revived again. Back in 1997, Najomtien and Ban Amphur were the new darling of real estate developers. Remnants of projects still crippled by the currency collapse dot the landscape there. All are experiencing a wave of rebirth in different measures.
Gorgeous buildings like Ocean Marina and Ocean Portofino have been around for a while and continue to flourish. New projects on the rise are evident. The Mövenpick White Sands Beach is a grand example. Centara Grand Residence from The Tulip Group is another rising star. If the luxury and service promised in Centara’s brochures are accurate, it represents a whole new level of tourism and property business for Pattaya.
Developers continue to raise the bar and, apparently, a rising tide does lift all boats.
Prices are rising, buildings are rising, tourist arrivals are rising, and expectations are rising. It has been a surreal transformation to watch.
My particular perch to observe the skyline morphing into shape is Ban Amphur. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t see new construction cranes being erected or observe the telltale sign of bright green safety webbing adorning the sides of a new building being born. I realise every morning that my days of saying “I live in a fishing village” are numbered.
Yes, it seems that Pattaya is rising in more ways than one. Our rapidly changing skyline is testament to and an expression of this fact.
From skanky old beach town to chic resort destination and burgeoning coastal city; and apparently the sky is not the limit.